Seinfeld’s alternate December holiday has actual followers. There are even books about it. Its primary attraction seems to be that it is not Christmas, Hannukah, or Kwanzaa and that it is easy to observe. All you need is parties, grievance-airing, pole-erecting, beer-brewing and the invention of new Festivus rituals.
It was a thrill to get a chance to talk to Ed Asner — best known as Lou Grant on the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” and its spin-off and having a very big year as the voice star of one of the biggest critical and box office successes of 2009, “Up” from Pixar and Disney. Asner is a talented actor with a wide range who has played everything from Santa Claus (in “Elf”) to real-life mobster Meyer Lansky (“Donzi: The Legend”) and Franklin Roosevelt (on stage). But his best-remembered roles have him playing tough, sometimes irascible, forceful characters who may, somewhere, have some hidden tenderness. That quality links his roles as the powerful industrialist estranged from his family in The Gathering and the grumpy widower in Up. Mr. Asner spoke to me by phone from his office.
NM: I am so happy that The Gathering is available on DVD! It is one of my favorite holiday films. What led you to accept the role?
EA: I had a choice between two Christmas films, one about a rich family and one about a poor family. I liked this script better and it had nothing to do with riches, it was the story and the characters. So I opted for this one and came to Chagrin Falls in Hudson, Ohio and it was a stellar cast.
NM: You got to work with one of the truly great actresses, Oscar-winner Maureen Stapleton, who played your ex-wife. What was it like working with her?
EA: She was a doll. She gained a little weight during the show so towards the end of the filming we had to pin the wardrobe together but I loved working with her. She was a tough broad but sweet as she could be. And she gave me the nicest compliment in the world. She said that working with me as as good or better as she hoped it would be.
NM: She was famously a method actor. Did your styles as performers work well together?
EA: I am not a method actor, though I studied for a year with Lee Strasburg. But our styles had no conflict; we meshed as actors. We did not need to work out a whole history about what drove our characters apart. I didn’t know it the time but since have realized that people can get bored with each other unless they have the most profound belief in each other. As a powerful executive he may have wanted to play around or whatever and finally discovers that he is going to die. So he makes the plans — that was the most outspoken scene between us, when she realizes what I’m hiding, it was a delicious moment.
NM: I know it was a long time ago, but what do you remember about working on “The Gathering?”
EA: I loved getting to Chagrin Falls, being by the falls, what a cute place it is. I loved working with all the people I had to work with, and the story — the dissensions and dislikes but also the rapprochement when people are willing to open up to each other. The script had good highs and lows. Everything else is all cushioned by his wealth, so all that is left is the person to person contact and the person to person love. And the cast was outstanding: John Randolph, Laurence Pressman, Veronica Hamel, Bruce Davison, Gregory Harrison, Rebecca Balding. And I was delighted at the reception it got. A friend of mine, an award-winning journalist, led a vigilante group to bludgeon the network to put it on every year. And she succeeded most of the time!
NM: I have to ask you about “Up.”
EA: It was a lovely experience for me. The directors, Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, are unbelievably talented. They created a menacing phalanx to have to survive under in the story and we had a marvelous time just making it — the genius is all theirs!
Like its winning hero, this movie wears its heart right on its sleeve. It lays it out for us right at the beginning, making it clear that “this is not a love story.” Oh, and it is a work of fiction. The usual disclaimer from the closing credits appears up front, letting us know that none of the characters should be confused with anyone in real life. Especially one named young woman in particular. Who is then described with an epithet often heard in a kennel.
It’s wrong about one thing; it is a love story. But that does not make it a happy love story. This is, as the narrator obligingly informs us, the story of Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who believes in love and believes that he will find true love and it will make him happy, and Summer (Zooey Deschanel), who does not believe in love and thinks that her 20’s should be about having fun. A match made in heaven? In the movies, maybe, but not this one.
It has been a long time, perhaps since “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” since a movie evoked the joys and pains of first love with such art and delicacy. We know from the title that the romance will last 500 days. The movie shows us that period thematically rather than chronologically so that we go from a day near the end of their relationship to a day near the beginning that explains what the later one was about. By the time we see those first, early moments of heady connection, we realize how the sweetness of those initial feelings will become almost unbearably poignant. In one encounter late in their relationship, when he comes to a party she is hosting, we see a split screen, one marked “expectation” and the other “reality.” The differences between them are subtle, but telling.
Director Marc Webb and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber think very cinematically, using the unique attributes of film to evoke the feelings and experiences of the characters. And Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel are two of the most appealing and talented young performers in Hollywood and they create characters who are vibrant and real. We may not know whether they will stay in love with each other, but the audience will fall in love with them.